Published on 16 Jan 2012 at 09:54
Sahar Gul, a new bride of 15 years of age, has been badly tortured by her in-law’s family for almost six months in the northeastern region of Baghlan province, but she is still alive. Sahar’s story has brought attention to an endemic problem of violence against women occurring throughout Afghanistan. In doing so, her story has raised the question: is violence against women a social contagion with no cure?
Sahar Gul, 15, is originally from Badakhshan Province, but moved when she was married off to a man from Baghlan Province. On January 5, 2012, Sahar Gul was found abused and tortured in the home of her husband’s family.
According to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) and Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Sahar Gul was given to a husband when she was only 14 years of age. Her step-brother forced her to marry with Ghulam Sakhi, 30, a military soldier in Pul-e-Khumri, the provincial capital of Baghlan Province in exchange for 260,000 Afghanis (approximately 5,531 U.S. dollars).
According to local residents, Sahar Gul’s father-in-law, Amanullah, and her mother-in-law tried to force her to be a prostitute. When Sahar Gul refused to be forced into prostitution, she was badly tortured by her husband and his family.
The family locked her up in a wet, dark room for five months, pulled out her fingernails, pulled out her hair and broke her arms.
She was found in the basement of her husband’s house after her step-brother reported her disappearance to the local police.
Fawzia Habibi, Director of the Coordination and Foreign Relations Department at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, says that local police have arrested her father-, mother- and sisters in-law who are responsible for the abuse. Sahar Gul’s husband was in Herat where police arrested him.
Latifa Sultani, head of the Coordination Department at AIHRC, states that although local police arrested Sahar Gul’s father-in-law, mother in-law, and husband for her torture, all were later released following an intervention by the area’s Malik (traditional village elder).
Sahar Gul is now under intensive medical care in Kabul city and officials report her condition has improved.
They also said that Sahar Gul arrived to the hospital with anemia because she was starved for months while locked up. She required a blood transfusion. Doctors warn that the impact of the torture will have significant and lifelong psychological effects.
Sahar's story, although tragic, is not uncommon across the country where many girls are married off at an early age and are often treated unfairly and with abuse. Most of these young brides are unaware of their legal rights, allowing for increased incidences of abuse and domestic violence.
Zofunoon Hisaam Natiq, head of the Badakhshan Department of Women’s Affairs, explains that early marriages are occurring throughout Afghanistan as a result of lack of awareness of the law, poor education and poverty. “Poor families are unaware of the laws and they marry their daughters at an early age in exchange for money,” she said. “Unfortunately, most of them experience a similar destiny [as Sahar Gul].”
Such harmful marriage related practices and domestic violence are illegal in Afghanistan. According to the Elimination of Violence against Women Law, those who force girls into early marriage, force marriage or perpetrate domestic violence may face sentences of up ten to years in prison.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) asked President Karzai to seriously punish all persons involved in Sahar Gul’s case.
Women in all parts of Afghanistan are continuously subjected to various types of violence. NATO forces found the nearly dead body of Bibi Aisha in Uruzgan Province last year after her husband cut off her nose and ears and left her in the desert to die. But, she was rescued by NATO forces and then sent to the United States for plastic surgery.
Gunmen raped an engaged girl in Takhar Province last July and then killed her. Another 12 year old girl was later raped in Takhar in August.
A man killed his wife with an axe in Badakhshan Province in September and two other women were shot dead in Ghazni Province in December. Also, a female teacher was raped in Baghlan and gunmen raped all women of a family in Kunduz Province.
Compared to year 1389 (2009-2010), the cases of violence against women which are recorded with the AIHRC, have doubled within the first six months of year 1390 (April – September 2011).
The rate of recorded violence against women
since 1387 (2008) (source MoWA)
Based on reports from the Commission, 1,167 cases of violence against women were recorded in the first six months of year 1389 (April – September 2010), but there were 2,433 cases of violence against women recorded in the first six months of 1390 (April – September 2011), which reveals an increase of more than 100 percent in cases of domestic violence reported across the country.
Police forces often report on the arrests of perpetrators of violence against women, but according to the AIHRC, the lack of political will to follow up on cases and prosecute perpetrators is responsible for increasing incidences of violence against women.
“The government has no political will to eliminate violence against women and defend human rights,” said Sultani. “Corruption within the judicial system means that perpetrators of violence against women face no punishment or may not even be arrested at all. There are many reasons for this including inattention of the police, administrative corruption and bribery in the judicial system, as well as the intervention by power brokers and government officials to release criminals. Combined, these factors allow violence against women to go on.”
Often those who commit these crimes escape the country or join the armed opposition.
Nasima Arzo, head of the Department of Women’s Affairs in Sar-e-Pul Province says that 150 cases of violence against women were recorded in the first six months of the year in the province. “People who commit these crimes escape from the area and join the government’s armed opponents,” she said. “Saleh Mohammad, a former commander, joined the opponents after he raped a girl.”
Fawzia Habibi says that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs asked the government to establish a ‘special prosecution office’ as well as a ‘special court’ to investigate and prosecute cases of violence against women. She said that the special prosecution office has been instituted and the Council of Ministers has approved its regulation.
Lack of legal representation for women and an absence of professional prosecutors within the judicial system are other significant constraints which have allowed cases of violence against women to fall by the wayside or have allowed the victims of violence to be unjustly prosecuted.
Gulnaz, a woman who was raped two years ago, was sent to prison on charges of adultery. The result of rape was a baby who was born in prison while Gulnaz served her sentence. She was released last month.
The European Union made a film last year revealing the inattention and disregard of Afghanistan’s judicial entities in investigating cases of violence against women. The film was not released to protect the identity and safety of the women featured, but it nonetheless opened the way for Gulnaz, the main character of the film, to be freed.
Unfortunately, there are many women with similar cases in prison, but no one to investigate their files because they are not provided with defense lawyers.
Reports on the rising incidence of domestic violence, and the tragic stories of Sahar Gul and countless other victims across the country suggest that violence against women may be an unending story for Afghanistan. With the teeming constraints posed by lack of education, poverty, harmful marriage related traditions, and a lack of political will to change, is this a story that Afghans can end? Or, can the stories of Sahar Gul and others serve to galvanize a stronger resistance to violence against women and end the ignorance which has long perpetrated its existence?
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